Yugoslavia’s Misfortune!

Google ‘Yugoslavia’ and you will read:

Yugoslavia was a country in Southeast Europe during most of the 20th century…. After an economic and political crisis in the 1980s and the rise of nationalism, Yugoslavia broke up along its republics’ borders, at first into seven countries, leading to the Yugoslav Wars.

Indeed, Yugoslavia officially went out existence in January 1992, but its collapse began long before that.  At the time some of Yugoslavia’s peoples and nations understood the Yugoslav federation as an artificial and non-permanent entity, others believed in its structure as it stood, without questioning its future.

Read the October US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 15–90) – some two years before the collapse:

Yugoslavia will cease to function as a federal state within a year, and will probably dissolve within two. Economic reform will not stave off the breakup. […] A full-scale interrepublic war is unlikely, but serious intercommunal conflict will accompany the breakup and will continue afterward. The violence will be intractable and bitter. There is little the United States and its European allies can do to preserve Yugoslav unity.

The United States, wanting a strong Yugoslavia, had poured billions of dollars into Yugoslavia’s treasury, until the collapse of the Soviet empire, which eliminated any remaining U.S. strategic interest in Yugoslavia.

Many argue that former Yugoslavia collapsed because it had never really existed as a true unified country.  Instead, it had been forced together and had never really cohered.  It brought together people of different languages, religions, and histories.  For example, the Croats were Catholic while the Serbs were Orthodox Christians and many of the people of Bosnia were Muslim.  The various peoples spoke similar languages, but Serbs and Bosnians wrote their languages in Cyrillic while Croats and Slovenes used the Roman alphabet.  Historically, Croatia had been part of the Austria-Hungary while Serbia had been part of the Ottoman Empire. In all of these ways, and more, the people who were put together into the new country of Yugoslavia were very different (or at least felt very different) from one another. But they stayed together for decades through force and through the political skills of one man, Marshal Tito.  The man (Tito) was politically astute enough, and had the military establishment behind him to keep those rivalries in check. When he died, there was nothing left to hold the “country” together.

An important note: Despite the economic headwinds in the early eighties, Former Yugoslavia was considered well positioned at the end of the cold war to make a successful transition to a market economy and westernization. A Brookings study (Balkan Tragedy 1995) notes that it took two years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the start of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in March 1992 to take the country toward disintegration.

One question: Did Former Yugoslavia split from the bottom up or from the top down?

A series of research studies found:

… ethnic dissension was held in check by an authoritarian government until the discipline of the League of Communists was undermined by economic and constitutional crises after Tito’s death in 1980.

…. As soon as a democratization process took hold of Bosnian politics, political parties became ethnic-bound and conflict intensity increased. The Communist ideology of “Brotherhood and Unity” vanished.

… The Nations which generated most of the wealth of Former Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia) had little input to its distribution. The minority Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia were also over-represented in the position of political, police and military power. This led to further increases in conflict. However, expression of this conflict was subdued by Tito’s regime. Although many Croats and Slovenes wanted more control over their own resources and independence in political matters, they were prevented from attaining these.

For sure the regime’s leaders misled their own people, made a series of calamitous misjudgments, ignored warning signs of impending crisis, and collectively failed to grasp an elemental concept of conflict resolution.

This gets me to the point of this article: First, nation states are fragile entities. In our life time, nations that once rose to prominence and flourished have collapsed. Read the assessment by the Washington based National Intelligence Council (NIC) in its Global Trends report (December 2012) which  “predicts” that 15 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East will become “failed states” by 2030, due to their “potential for conflict and environmental ills”. The list of countries in the 2012 NIC report includes: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, DR Congo, Malawi, Haiti, Yemen.

Second, managing ethnic diversity is never easy. In Yugoslavia, despite the many efforts made, the ethnic and class conflicts was never resolved. Experience reveals that ethnic harmony is not to be taken for granted. Relations between ethnic groups need to be carefully nurtured and protected. It’s important to have constitutional tools for the prevention, management, and resolution of ethnic conflict.

Third, the pact that holds plural societies together requires agreement and consensus on certain principles such as: respect for different ethnic and cultural groups, the rights of individuals and the groups to be culturally different, the importance of “inclusive” political and economic institutions, as opposed to ‘exclusive’ or even “extractive” institutions where power and opportunity are concentrated in the hands of only a few.

Former Yugoslavia is a revealing example of political experiment in the unification of social and ethnic diversity that failed. Yugoslavia had a chance to maintain its unity (like Belgium or Switzerland or Canada), unfortunately its leaders were not good enough to navigate the complex web of multi cultural, multi ethnic politics. They over played their hands. The rest is history.

Could this happen to Ethiopia too?

I don’t know. But, I hope we’ll be careful not to over play our cards.